The World’s Fair of 1962 put Seattle on the map—it turns out we just needed to bring our own map. When fair organizer Joseph Gandy started shopping his idea to the Bureau of International Expositions, he had to point out Puget Sound: No, he’d say, not Washington, DC. He produced map cards with a big arrow: “Here is Seattle in the state of Washington, U.S.A.” It worked. Century 21 got official recognition by the BIE, a laurel that New York’s 1964 expo couldn’t claim.
Century 21 began as a downtown improvement project, a way to bring attention from the growing suburbs (and the just-out-of-town Boeing boom) to the center of the city. It ended up being a six-month spotlight on Seattle, drawing the likes of Elvis and the Shah of Iran to the growing metropolis. With a taste of international culture and the planners’ vision for a permanent legacy, Seattle’s art scene blossomed. And the city got its metal monuments: a sky-high tower and a zippy monorail, two mod totems that look as good in rain as they do in sun.
Dozens of nations sent envoys and exhibits to Seattle in 1962, and almost 10 million people filtered through its giant spectacle. The fair was a semipermanent carnival of cotton candy and peep shows, but the footprint it left came to define the city. Some remember the fair as merely a six-month PR blitz for the region, while others can still taste their first Belgian waffle.
Did the fair change Seattle, or did it reflect the space-crazy tech attitude that already pervaded the Northwest? It’s probably a little of both. A full 50 years later, we’ve still got the Space Needle, we’ve still got Seattle Center, and, for the most part, Seattle is still in charge of the future.